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Let the Question Do the Work

My daughter Emma is delighted by riddles. A benefit of distance learning is that the two of us share a special little routine during the day: we send each other riddles over email. During breaks in our day, we reply back and forth with guesses of what the answer might be. 

Sometimes Emma will think a riddle is especially clever and share it with the rest of our family at dinner. Yet without the delays provided through email exchanges, her excitement often means the answer is exclaimed instantly, without even a pause to allow the rest of the family to consider.

“It can be helpful to pause after asking,” I offer. “You can give the person a moment to think of what the answer might be.” This was right after she rushed, “What letter of the alphabet holds the most water… C… get it ‘sea’ like the ocean because of the water?” 

Emma’s quick jump to the answer is similar to how we often approach conversations. We ask a question with an answer in mind that we are expecting to hear. We often frame questions in a way that draws out the answer we wanted. Or we might even jump in, without waiting for a response from the other person, and simply answer the question ourselves. In doing so, we take away the opportunity for the other person to sit with the question we’ve posed and think through how they might want to reply.

One of my wise colleagues describes the skill of letting the question do its work. Once we offer the question, it’s in the other person’s space to decide when and how to respond. Whether posing a riddle or asking a curious question, the space after the question mark belongs to the other person to think and respond.

I leave you with this riddle:

I am in two parts, one above, one below.
I come not when shouted, said or told.
But I help you ponder what you know.
What am I?

I leave you with space to think and respond.

Author: Alyssa Forcehimes, PhD

An expert in behavior change, substance use disorders and empathic communication, Dr. Alyssa Forcehimes serves as President of The Change Companies® and Train for Change Inc.® She lives in Arizona with her husband and two daughters.